A MOMENT OF BEAUTY: Photography inspires artwork at Natchez’s 37th Annual Hot Air Balloon Festival – Mississippi’s Best Community Newspaper

A MOMENT OF BEAUTY: Photography inspires artwork at 37th Annual Natchez Hot Air Balloon Festival

Posted at 5:00 a.m. on Saturday, August 20, 2022

NATCHEZ — A moment of beauty during the dark days of the COVID-19 pandemic inspired the illustrations for 37e Annual Natchez Hot Air Balloon Festival.

Ben Hillyer has covered 21 hot air balloon festivals for The Democratic Natchez since joining the newspaper as a photographer in 2000. However, 2020 has been like no other.

The Natchez Balloon Festival would still take place, but without the festival portion.

Instead, more than 30 hot air balloons scattered throughout the Miss Lou for an evening balloon glow. One night many pilots didn’t inflate their balloons to shine because it was windy, but a few did. One was Kurt Vitense, who took part in the glow in a grassy field next to Pig Out Inn on Broadway Street.

Hillyer saw the figure of a masked man standing alone on the porch of Bontura, one of Natchez’s many historic homes, and the balloon lit up the night sky behind him.

Seeing his opportunity, Hillyer waited for the perfect shot.

“I got a lot of positive responses,” Hillyer said. “A lot of people said, ‘You should turn this into a poster for the balloon race. The following year came and I decided that was what I was going to do. I was going to take this picture and make a poster out of it.

In 2022, no one wants to be reminded of COVID-19, Hillyer said. He made more than a few edits to the original photo, putting ideas together like a puzzle. He played with the figures on the balcony, first swapping the masked man in solitude with a father and son. Then he removed the silhouettes leaving only the balcony.

The Bontura poster didn’t win the 2021 art contest, but Hillyer used the same idea in the 2022 contest with a few tweaks.

He added the branch of a living oak extending to the top of the stage. Something was missing in these branches. Maybe a bird? A bird wouldn’t be big enough for the space, so Hillyer decided a cat could sit there and watch balloons fly in the distance.

“The Natchez Balloon Festival is thrilled to announce that Ben Hillyer is the winner of this year’s artwork competition,” said Carter Burns, CEO of the Historic Natchez Foundation. “The Natchez Balloon Festival committee was impressed with the creativity of all of the submissions received and would like to thank everyone who participated in the competition.

Hillyer’s artwork will be available for purchase on a poster or t-shirt during this year’s Hot Air Balloon Festival, taking place October 14-16 in Rosalie. Burns said the t-shirts and posters should be available to order by mid-September.

This is the third time that Hillyer has won the hot air balloon festival art competition. He won the first time he entered the competition in 2013 with a piece inspired by balloons flying above the Clifton Avenue cliff. The second time he won in 2017, Hillyer set up a colorful scene featuring balloons flying over the shape of famous buildings on the Natchez skyline, including St. Mary’s Basilica.

Originally from Alabama, Hillyer said he first became interested in photography when he was six or seven years old. His grandparents gave him his first camera, a KODAK with a 110 film cartridge and a removable flash bulb on top.

“My grandparents were both creative and artistic,” Hillyer said. “My grandmother was a weaver and my grandfather was a carpenter and they exhibited their stuff in galleries in North Carolina.”

He graduated from Mississippi State University School of Architecture and worked in architecture for nearly a decade before joining The Democrat as a photographer in 2000.

Since then, he has held many positions within the newspaper, including Creative Director and Editor-in-Chief and in 2020, he stepped into the newly created role of Digital Engagement Leader for Boone Newspapers Inc., the parent company of The Democrat.

Hillyer has won numerous national and regional awards for photography, design and writing.

In addition to his newspaper work, he is an accomplished artist and photographer who has seen his work featured in galleries nationwide. It has been exhibited twice at the Mississippi Museum of Art during their biannual invitation and regularly attends photo festivals in Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama, he said.